They call it Britain's most dreaded Literary Prize, and the winner of the 19th annual Literary Review's Bad Sex in Fiction Award is American David Guterson for his novel Ed King (Bloomsbury).
Ed King is a re-imagining of the Oedipus myth in the second half of the twentieth century. The winning scene is introduced in the book as 'the part where a mother has sex with her son'.
'Oedipus practically invented bad sex, so I'm not in the least bit surprised,' David Guterson, whose bestselling debut novel, Snow Falling on Cedars, won the 1995 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, said in response to his fifth novel winning the award.
The prize was presented to a representative of his publishers by Barbara Windsor, star of the Carry On films and Eastenders in the appropriately chosen In & Out Club in London, as Guterson was unable to accept the prize—a plaster foot — in person.
As always, there was "stiff competition" —Barbara Windsor too could not resist the pun —from other contenders on the shortlist from Haruki Murakami's 1Q84 ('A freshly made ear and a freshly made vagina look very much alike, Tengo thought'), Chris Adrian's The Great Night (featuring an 'impossibly stiff, impossibly eloquent cock' that 'poked her now from the front and now from the back and now from the side'), and Lee Child's The Affair ('Then it was time. We started tenderly. Long and slow, long and slow. Deep and easy. She flushed and gasped. So did I. Long and slow').
Jonathan Beckman, Literary Review's assistant editor said the judges were eventually swayed by his over-reliance on terms such as "family jewels", "back door" and "front parlour" during a sex scene between mother and son and singled out the following paragraphs:
These sorts of gyrations and five-sense choreographies, with variations on Ed's main themes, played out episodically between 10 p.m. and 10 a.m., when Diane said, "Let's shower."
In the shower, Ed stood with his hands at the back of his head, like someone just arrested, while she abused him with a bar of soap. After a while he shut his eyes, and Diane, wielding her fingernails now and staring at his face, helped him out with two practiced hands, one squeezing the family jewels, the other vigorous with the soap-and-warm-water treatment. It didn't take long for the beautiful and perfect Ed King to ejaculate for the fifth time in twelve hours, while looking like Roman public-bath statuary. Then they rinsed, dried, dressed, and went to an expensive restaurant for lunch.
Beckman also referred to a previous passage: "So she took him by the wrist and moved the base of his hand into her pubic hair until his middle fingertip settled on the no-man's-land between her 'front parlour' and 'back door.'"
Beckman explained the rationale for the judges' choice: "It's all slightly over the top and there's a bit of a disjoint between this guy who is a sexual demi-god and the weird, weird way Guterson goes about describing it. He seems a bit involved in it. He says in brackets that these are quaint, prudish terms but I don't think that is sufficient justification for using them. He's trying to find a way of writing about sex but it comes across as awkward and self-conscious ... It doesn't quite come off as the whole scene is pervaded by this very heavy-handed imagery."
Other contenders on the shortlist included:
- On Canaan’s Side by Sebastian Barry (“We got rid of our damned clothes, and clung, and he was in me then.”)
- The Final Testament of the Holy Bible by James Frey (“Every part of my body sang some song I had never heard.”)
- Parallel Stories by Péter Nádas (“They hit gracefully on this exceedingly advantageous position.”)
- 11.22.63 by Stephen King (“Her head bonked on the door. ‘Ouch,’ I said. ‘Are you all right?’”)
- The Land of Painted Caves by Jean M Auel (“It surged up, until, with volcanic release, it engulfed them.”)
- Dead Europe by Christos Tsiolkas (“My tongue furiously worked the craters.”)
- Outside the Ordinary World by Dori Ostermiller (“We’re part of the same organism: some outrageous sea creature.”)
- Everything Beautiful Began After by Simon Van Booy (“Henry reached up her thighs … as though quietly imploring.)
Click here for more excerpts from this year's nominations.
The Literary Review Bad Sex in Fiction Award was instituted by Rhoda Koenig, a literary critic, and Auberon Waugh, then editor of the London-based Literary Review in 1993 for the most laughable descriptions of sex in a contemporary novel with the intention "to draw attention to the crude, tasteless, often perfunctory use of redundant passages of sexual description in the modern novel, and to discourage it."
When choosing their first winner, Auberon Waugh, editor of the Literary Review had claimed that he had to threaten Bragg with 'a hate Melvyn rally' before he would agree to appear in person at an Academy Club dinner to receive the award - a revolting statuette symbolising bad sex.
Last year the prize was won by Rowan Somerville for The Shape of Her published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson. Other past winners include Jonathan Littell (2009), Rachel Johnson (2008) and Norman Mailer (2007). Aniruddha Bahal won the award in 2003, while Siddharth Dhanvant Shangvi was nominated in 2004 and Tarun Tejpal in 2005. Such eminences as Salman Rushdie and Thomas Pynchon are others who have been nominated in recent years. In 2010, British Prime Minister Tony Blair became the first nonfiction author to receive a nomination for his autobiography, A Journey, where he wrote: "On that night of 12 May 1994, I needed that love Cherie gave me, selfishly. I devoured it to give me strength. I was an animal following my instinct."
For in-depth, objective and more importantly balanced journalism, Click here to subscribe to Outlook Magazine